Friday, November 19, 2004

Bang Rajan reviews

Bang Rajan continues its arthouse onslaught in US theatres. Among the cities its playing in are Minneapolis and Seattle. The Star-Tribune picked up Ann Hornaday's review from the Washington Post:

One of Thailand's most cherished stories is brought to life with pomp and pageantry in this wartime epic (*** out of four stars). Bang Rajan was a Siamese village attacked by the Burmese army in 1765. For five months, these men and women -- mostly farmers -- held out with ingenuity and breathtaking courage. Even without knowledge of Thai history, fans of war pictures will be impressed by Thai filmmaker Thanit Jitnukul's achievement in creating a detailed and graphic, if overheated, account of this ultimate underdog story. As the two mismatched armies meet in a massive final battle, the spectacle recalls Mel Gibson's Braveheart. But in his fetishistic obsession with the aesthetics of suffering and sacrifice, Jitnukul might be closer to the sensibility of a more recent Gibson film. The Passion of the Thai, anyone?

While Seattle Weekly's Neal Schindler offers his own review:

Several bravura fight sequences, captured thrillingly by cinematographer Vichien Ruangvichayakul, are reason enough to see Thai director Thanit Jitnukul's stirring account of Siamese villagers fighting their Burmese oppressors in the 18th century. What begins as a straightforward history lesson—how the Kingdom of Siam became modern-day Thailand—quickly evolves into a vibrant, often visceral story of love during wartime and perseverance in the face of mind-blowing brutality. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, Bang Rajan assembles a sizable cast, then leaves no man (or woman) standing; the emotional focus is on conflicted warrior Nai In (Winai Kraibutr) and his pregnant wife, E Sa (Bongkod Kongmalai), but roughly a dozen secondary characters, including an aging military leader and an ageless monk, emerge with crystal clarity. It's easy to see why Oliver Stone lent his name to the American distribution of Bang Rajan: Like Platoon, it takes a raw, unflinching view of combat, employing a low-traveling camera for a literally down-to-earth perspective on each skirmish. And though the film incorporates considerable gore (decapitations, lost limbs, and worse), the violence is artfully rendered and never gratuitous, and there's no smug moral awaiting viewers at the end. Bang Rajan simply expresses with unusual power the adage that war makes beasts of men, and no one truly emerges the victor.

Bang Rajan
also is in San Francisco, where the SF Bay Guardian did a nice big interview with prolific producer "Uncle" Adirek Watleela. I used part of it in an earlier posting about Citizen Dog and I wanted to just go ahead and use the whole thing. So here it is:

Etched in, blood, and righteous sacrifice, the period epic Bang Rajan is the latest stateside salvo in the Thai film renaissance. It's the tale of 18th-century villagers who – without the help of the fat cats in Thailand's then-capital, Ayatthuya – repelled an invading 100,000-strong Burmese army eight times before finally falling. Bang Rajan delves deep into a galvanizing national moment, thanks to camerawork that eagerly jumps into the fray of battle. Graphically, the nigh-faceless white-shirted Burmese soldiers are no match for the magnificently sinewy Thai villagers.

Both Watleela and director Thanit Jitnukul cut their teeth painting the lusty, violent images found on Thai movie posters. It shows in every frame: the incredible strongman mustache sported by Bang Rajan's leading warrior, the dozens of fighters leaping out of mud-puddle camouflage, a water buffalo with horns seemingly 10 feet wide. The film's final battle trumps the Weinstein (if not the Scorsese) cut of Gangs of New York as a mosaic of suffering and crazy carnage. On the occasion of Bang Rajan's San Francisco arrival, the man named Uncle spoke to us.

Bay Guardian: What's the story behind your nickname?

Uncle Watleela: Back when I was painting movie posters, I wore these baggy trousers that everyone called Charlie Chaplin trousers. In Thai, they're more often called "uncle trousers." Pued called me Uncle, and it stuck. Pued is Jitnukul's nickname – it means "jet black," referring to his very dark skin. He comes from the south of Thailand.

BG: How did Bang Rajan originate?

UW: The story is something every Thai child knows – it was always a dream of mine to film such courage and love of the land. Five years ago, when I set up my production company, Film Bangkok, I had the project in mind.

BG: Why was the movie so immensely popular in Thailand?

UW: There are three reasons. First, Thailand was lacking a hero or leader at the time, and the movie stirred up an intensely patriotic feeling. Second, modern Burmese insurgents holding up the [Thai] embassy and having shoot-outs. The final reason had to do with the [film's] water buffalo – Thais just loved that buffalo, which sadly died just a couple of weeks after the movie hit theaters. The buffalo, which was very old, was out doing publicity. It finally just became tired of all the grind.

BG: Really? The buffalo was on TV?

UW: Yes. When the Bang Rajan stars appeared on talk shows, the buffalo was brought onto sets along with them. The animal really drove the movie's popularity home.

BG: Was it hard to sell Bang Rajan, since it's a period piece and there's little chance to, say, tuck in a Red Bull ad?

UW: Even product placement is rarely enough to help pay for a movie. Twenty years ago, no foreign viewers at all were interested in Thai film. These days, the interest shown in some sectors expands our choices of subjects, but the Thai audiences still won't accept art movies. With the exception of Bang Rajan, the recent films that have crossed over to other markets [Blissfully Yours, Last Life in the Universe, Tears of the Black Tiger] have largely been commercial failures in Thailand.

BG: So many epics in America have pretensions to world music excellence, with some kind of wailing woman soloing over tabla drums and the like. Bang Rajan's music is a bit more focused.

UW: The first soundtrack was too international, so it was eventually sent back and given an Asian "smell." That's the focus you're hearing, I think.

BG: Do you have a favorite moment from the movie?

UW: There's a scene in which [two characters] sit in the rain and talk about the endless fighting. I in fact wrote that scene as a metaphor to describe my and Pued's attempts to make quality movies in the face of business concerns – having to fight and ultimately die! [laughs] I hope Film Bangkok doesn't meet the same fate as the villagers of Bang Rajan. Otherwise I'm going to end up making movies like Anaconda or Spider-Man.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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